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ICRC activities in the field of weapons

21-07-2005 Statement

The question of arms and their use has been a concern of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) since its establishment in 1863. The founder of the ICRC, Henry Dunant, warned already in 1862 that new technologies threatened to make war more barbaric.

Since suffering in war is inflicted both by the choice of weapons and by how they are used international humanitarian law has always addressed both the choice of weapons and the behaviour of combatants. The ICRC's mandate to promote and develop international humanitarian law covers both the general rules and specific provisions which regulate the use of weapons.

The role of the ICRC and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in addressing arms issues, in cooperation with government efforts in this field, was most recently recognised in the " Agenda for Humanitarian Action " adopted by the 28th International Red Cross and Red Crescent Conference in 2003. Most States party to the Geneva Conventions, including all major military powers, contributed to this document and joined in adopting it by consensus. Roughly a quarter of the Agenda's content addresses arms issues including anti-personnel mines, explosive remnants of war, biological weapons, arms proliferation and new weapons.

In addition to its protection and assistance activities for those affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence, the ICRC's preventive action in the field of arms also saves lives. In few cases is this as clear as in the field of anti-personnel mines which were causing a global epidemic of landmines injuries before the ICRC, along with the United Nations, the US State Department and humanitarian organizations called attention to this humanitarian problem in the mid-1990s. The results of ICRC work on this issue over the past ten years includes a strengthened mines protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and  the Convention on the Prohibition of Antipersonnel Mines now adhered to by 145 States [December 2006 - 152 States] including most mine affected countries. These efforts have led to a significant decrease in civilian landmine casualties in many countries.

The ICRC took the lead in international efforts between 2000 and 2003 which resulted in the adoption of a new international agreement on explosive remnants of war (Protocol V to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons). When implemented, the agreement can further reduce the human suffering resulting from warfare. In addition the ICRC has called attention to the specific human costs of cluster munitions and called for restrictions on their use in populated areas.

In the field of arms proliferation the institution has highlighted the high human costs of unregulated availability of small arms and light weapons and joined with States in calling for stronger regulation of international transfers of military style arms and better training for arms users. It has promoted, in particular, policies which ensure consideration of the likely respect for international humanitarian law of potential arms recipients before arms are transferred to them.

Since it first issued a public Appeal against poison weapons in 1918 in response to the use of widespread use of poison gas in World War I the ICRC has sought to strengthen international prohibitions in this field. Recent efforts have included an initiative involving the scientific community, industry and governments to ensure that rapid advances in the life sciences are never put to hostile use in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention and 1925 Geneva Protocol. The ICRC has also engaged in discussions with States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention to confirm that the use of incapacitating chemicals is prohibited as a method of warfare.

The ICRC's work on arms primarily involves direct bilateral or multilateral work with governments as opposed to public statements or comment.